The Problem with Perfection

Perfection is a construct that seems to come with a benign aspiration. After all, how bad can it be to strive to be better? Haven’t we all been taught to do our best and give it our all so that we can achieve and earn well deserved accolades? Don’t we see the fruits of success as money, praises, and awards? Or how about just doing a great job so that we can be proud of ourselves and our efforts?

Trying to Be Good Parents

As parents, we see our children’s future through the filter of our own successes and failures, through the difficulties we have had to face and the sufferings we do not want them to endure. With that in mind, we develop a set of assumptions about what we want for them so that they can by pass the learnings we gained through the hard knocks of life. We distill our ah ha moments into lessons learned. We engrave into our daily routines the importance of such and such a habit or such and such a task, BASED ON OUR FEARS AND PROJECTIONS.

The problem with this approach is that we are trying to squeeze years of learning into a moment in time where we want, no, need, our children to trust that we know better. We are asking them to assume that our experience makes us experts on how to prepare them for their future without taking into consideration their personalities, ideas, experiences, or perspectives. We forget that they have their own filter and that their future is a different place than our past.

For example, we were taught to clean the food off our plates and not waste food. It is still a value that I agree with, in general, but not when we are teaching our bodies that feeling full is not an important signal. In this modern world, eating is no longer a natural human act of ingesting food to provide our bodies with nutrients. Food can be a signal of wealth, control, or passion. It’s complicated. We don’t need to make it even more complicated for our children by making eating an emotional activity.

Looking for Flaws

Speaking to kids with parent-centred rather than child-centred assumptions may set up their inner voices to LOOK FOR THE FLAWS. That’s right, it starts the perpetual critical voice that tells them: Do this, it’s better. You didn’t do it right, look again. That’s close, but you didn’t quite get it right. That’s not bad, but you can do better. Have you done your best? Why didn’t you think of…? What happened to the question you got wrong?

What we actually want them to do is to look for the learning for future opportunities, not beat themselves up because they were able to find imperfection in their action, statement, thought, choice, etc. We actually want them to shrug off imperfection as one experience, where they learned how to do something, how not to do something, how something didn’t even matter, or how results can be different even if you control everything you can control…

Example: When a child comes home with the mark from their quiz being less than perfect, we often wonder what they got wrong. From experience, parents are doing this to prepare for the final exam that may include all the topics covered. But all kids are hearing from us, why didn’t you get full marks? And in a way, we are asking that, but they think it’s a judgment of them, even if we mean it more from a holistic perspective to learn for the future. If a child is competitive and eager to do better, they will, but if a child did their best, they will feel imperfect for disappointing their parents and worried that they will continue to do so.

Developing Their Own Voice

When they ask us WHY? they are, yes, challenging our assumptions and asking us to model how to stand up for what we believe in, but they are also sincerely asking us to explain and connect the dots for them so that it makes sense.

If what we ask them to do makes sense, they can attach it to other factoids and build their common sense map so that it is easily accessible for whenever they need to think about this type of issue again.

If they have reasons they have not quite figured out how to articulate for NOT WANTING TO DO SOMETHING WE WANT THEM TO DO, by forcing them without spending the time to explain and connect, they will lose their inclination and ability to express their feelings.

Example: Bedtime is something that a lot of parents find emotionally difficult to deal with. Kids have their own minds and we are parents have the responsibility to ensure that they are healthy, which involves enough and good quality sleep. We want them to learn the consequences of not enough sleep, develop good sleep habits, and benefit from a great relationship with sleep. I believe a great attitude about sleep is half the battle to inoculate ourselves from sleep problems. We want this time to feel safe, comfortable, clean, relaxing, and rewarding. We want our kids to say, ooh, I feel tired and it’s time to sleep. But if all they know is us telling them to sleep when they don’t want to sleep, it’s hard to develop their own sense of what sleep could actually be, which is wonderful!

Practice Makes Perfect

This is a motto that we often hear and it tells us that the more we practice, the closer we will get to perfection, which is apparently the presumed goal here.

It’s not a bad motto for very specific, routine, and timebound activities, like, um, a piano piece to be performed 3 months from now at a recital. Or… cooking a specific recipe. Those are things that you can really perfect. There is a specific goal and it’s pretty clear what the rubric is for judging how good it is.

However, most of life isn’t like that. And most things that we do have too many moving parts and variables we don’t control.

Example: I’ve always known that being multilingual is good. But as a working mom, I had very little time with my kids when I got home and most of my communications was with my English-only husband. So for a very long time I felt very shameful about how I didn’t manage to get my kids to be bilingual in Chinese and English. What I didn’t realize is that the stress from the shame was interfering with how I was trying to get them to learn Chinese. When I realized that what I wanted more was a great relationship with my kids, we found a great rhythm of communication, in English, about so many things. I truly enjoy my conversations with them. If I had more money, if I lived in an environment with other Chinese-speakers, if… if… if… then maybe, just maybe, they would be bilingual. But they aren’t. And I’m okay with it.

Mistakes Help Us Learn

The one thing that I want them to learn more than anything is that mistakes help us learn. That not hitting the goal is not failure. That progression is more important than perfection. As long as we keep going and keep learning, as long as we stay curious about the world around us, we will be fine.

Of course, I recognize that this is probably through my own filter as a “recovering perfectionist” (I hear a lot of Asian parents say this about themselves and see that in myself too.) I suffered from expectations of myself that I never met. I berated myself for every mistake that no one else even noticed. I could not take compliments because I didn’t agree with them. I don’t want my kids to suffer this way.

Maybe one day, my kids will go to their virtual AI therapist with their problems and say “My mother did the best she could… but, man, this messed me up.” If you’ve read this far, laugh with me! We can only do our best, we can’t control the rest.

One day, if my kid comes to me with his problem, then I’ll know I’ve done the right thing. Fingers crossed.

Read More about DEVELOPING ROUTINES

Family Meetings

A professor/mentor of mine once told the young mother me that one of the most valuable piece of advice she received was to run regular family meetings.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

James Clear’s book is all about how to build productive habits and how to stop destructive habits.

Starting My Day with Making the Bed

For anyone dealing with any sort of mental health challenge, we struggle with what some may describe as procrastination or laziness.

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